In a lawsuit filed earlier this week, former homicide detective and Fox News analyst Rod Wheeler alleged that Fox News Channel and a Republican donor made up quotes attributed to him to drum up a retracted news story suggesting that the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich had something to do with the hack of the DNC’s email server during the 2016 election.
The suit has pushed the story of Rich – and the conspiracy theories surrounding his death – into the national spotlight.
But, there remains tons of confusion and misinformation about what actually happened to Rich, what Wheeler said about it and what, allegedly, Fox News, a Dallas-area businessman named Ed Butowsky and the White House had to do with it.
In an attempt to clear up that confusion, here’s a timeline of the entire episode – from Rich’s murder to the lawsuit being filed on Tuesday. This timeline is built on CNN’s published reporting as well as that of the Washington Post and other mainstream news outlets. It also relies on details used in the suit brought by Wheeler against Fox News. (The full filing is here.)
* July 10, 2016: Rich, 27, is shot to death in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC. He was shot several times including at least once in the back just after 4 am. Police said at the time of the murder they believed Rich was murdered after resisting an attempted robbery. Rich was involved in voter participation activities at the DNC.
* July 12, 2016 The conspiracy theories of Rich’s death begin to circulate – primarily via Reddit. The fact that the valuables Rich was carrying were not taken in the attempted robbery are seen as the key to the conspiracy, although it could also be because the robbery was botched.
* July 22, 2016: WikiLeaks releases more than 19,000 DNC emails obtained via a hack. A few of the emails paint DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as dismissive of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, confirming what many Sanders’ supporters had long believed. (Wasserman Schultz is later forced to resign.)
* July 25, 2016: The FBI announces it is opening an investigation into the DNC hack. Word also leaks out that federal investigators had warned the DNC about the possibility of a hack back in 2015.
* July 27, 2016: Trump holds a press conference during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in which he openly urges Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump says.
* Fall 2016: Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist, gets in touch with the Rich family. He puts up more than $100,000 in reward money for anyone with knowledge of Seth’s murder.
* Jan 3. 2017: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tells Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Russia didn’t provide his organization with the hacked DNC emails. (By this time, the CIA, FBI and NSA are all unanimous in their belief that the WikiLeaks’ hacks originated in Russia with the express purpose of helping to elected Trump.) One way the emails could have gotten from Russia to Wikileaks is through a “cut-out” or middle man.
* Jan. 4, 2017: Trump tweets this: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ - why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
* February 2017: Butowsky, the Dallas businessman, calls Wheeler and, it appears from the lawsuit, offers to pay him to look into the circumstances surrounding Rich’s death. Separately, according to the lawsuit, Wheeler shows up at a February 28 meeting with Butowsky and is “surprised” that Malia Zimmerman, the Fox News reporter, is there as well. He’s then told Butowsky and Zimmerman are working together.
* April 20, 2017: Butowsky and Wheeler meet with White House press secretary Sean Spicer. Wheeler says in his complaint that they provided the press secretary with a summary of Wheeler’s investigation’s finding to date.
* May 14, 2017: Butowsky tells Wheeler that President Trump has read the Zimmerman story and wants it published immediately, according to Wheeler’s lawsuit. Butowsky has said his note to Wheeler was a friendly joke.
* May 15, 2017 : Butowsky sends an email to a variety of on-air talent and off-air producers for Fox News letting them know the Zimmerman story is about to post, according to Wheeler’s complaint. “One of the big conclusions we need to draw from this is that the Russians did not hack our computer systems and steal emails and there was no collusion like Trump with the Russians,” he writes. It’s not clear who, if anyone, read or used this email at Fox News.
* May 16, 2017: The Zimmerman story is published on Fox News’ website. In it, Wheeler is quoted as saying “my investigation up to this point shows that there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.” Wheeler is also quoted as saying that someone within the DC government or the DNC is blocking the investigation into the Rich murder from going forward. Wheeler almost immediately begins to backtrack. In the lawsuit, he insists the quotes attributed to him were fabricated.
* May 16, 2017: Spicer is asked about the story in the White House daily press briefing. “I don’t — I’m not aware of — generally, I don’t get updates on DNC — former DNC staffers,” he says. “I’m not aware of that.”
* May 21, 2017: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich picks up on the report in an interview with “Fox & Friends.” “It turns out, it wasn’t the Russians,” says Gingrich. “It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.” Gingrich is one of a number of conservative commentators who spread the story; Hannity and Breitbart News also play the story up as confirmation that the Russian meddling narrative was a ruse and that the hacking was an inside job.
* May 23, 2017: Fox News retracts the Zimmerman story. “The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting,” reads a statement on the Fox website. “Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.” Fox News says it’s still investigating internally and has no evidence that Wheeler was misquoted
* May 23, 2017: The parents of Rich write a piece in the Washington Post headlined: “We’re Seth Rich’s parents. Stop politicizing our son’s murder.” In it, they write:
“Law-enforcement officials told us that Seth’s murder looked like a botched robbery attempt in which the assailants — after shooting our son — panicked, immediately ran and abandoned Seth’s personal belongings. We have seen no evidence, by any person at any time, that Seth’s murder had any connection to his job at the Democratic National Committee or his life in politics. Anyone who claims to have such evidence is either concealing it from us or lying.”
They also note that their son’s personal email and computer were searched by police and “revealed no evidence of any communications with anyone at WikiLeaks or anyone associated with WikiLeaks.”
May 23, 2017: Hannity says he will stop talking about the Rich murder after an appeal from Seth’s brother. “Please do not interpret what I’m saying tonight to mean anything,” Hannity adds. “Don’t read into this. I promise you I am not going to stop doing my job. To the extent of my ability, I am not going to stop finding the truth. … At the proper time we should continue and talk a lot more.”
August 1, 2017: NPR’s David Folkenflik is first to report about the existence of Wheeler’s lawsuit. He talks to Spicer who admits that he met with Butowksy and Wheeler on April 20. “It had nothing to do with advancing the president’s domestic agenda — and there was no agenda,” Spicer tells Folkenflik. “They were just informing me of the [Fox] story.”
August 1, 2017: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabeee Sanders is asked about the Wheeler lawsuit. “The President had no knowledge of the story, and it’s completely untrue that he or the White House had involvement in the story,” she said. “Beyond that, this is ongoing litigation, and I’d refer you to the actual parties involved, which aren’t the White House.”